UChicago college readiness and access programs offer practical guidance, boost of campus confidence for Chicago public high school students

college readiness

Fatima Perez found out she got into Yale on a full scholarship during her seventh period calculus class and burst into tears. As a first-generation soon-to-be college student, Perez had struggled with self-doubt throughout the application process but with the support of family, teachers, and the network of friends and mentors she built participating in the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program (CSP), Perez says she was able to close the confidence gap that’s so common for underrepresented students like her.

The Collegiate Scholars Program put the idea of going for the big shot school in our heads early on and that really helped students that come from similar backgrounds to mine feel more confident in their decisions, because we’re often put in positions where we wouldn’t [go for those schools] because we think we’re not capable,” Perez, who lives in the city’s West Lawn neighborhood and attends Eric Solorio Academy High School, said. “CSP has really made me feel more comfortable and confident in that regard.”

In fact, CSP was established in 2003 after the UChicago Consortium on School Research found that highly qualified Chicago Public School high school students like Perez were underreaching in their college applications. The three-year enrichment program prepares talented students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds for admission and success at highly selective colleges. 

More than 200 CPS high school students participate in the UChicago Office of Civic Engagement’s free, year-round college readiness and access programs, including CSP, each year. The programs offer financial aid workshops, college and career exploration and planning, nationwide college tours, classes where students directly interact with university faculty, and live-in programs on UChicago’s campus to introduce students to the college experience. 

fatima perez

Fatima Perez

In this year’s graduating class of 57 college readiness and access program participants, 73.7% will be first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds and 38.6% were admitted to highly selective colleges and universities. In total, participants were awarded nearly $9 million in financial aid.  

“Our programs provide resources and access to everything the University of Chicago has to offer,” Abel Ochoa, executive director of college readiness and access, says. “When students can see themselves on a college campus, they understand that they can succeed there.”

Quincy Bailey, who lives in the city’s Chatham neighborhood, was motivated to apply for CSP his sophomore year at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy after speaking with one of his teachers, who had taken part in the program during his own high school years. The program offered a challenge beyond the typical high school courses that appealed to Bailey. Though about half of his Collegiate Scholars experience was virtual due to the pandemic, Bailey soaked up the opportunity to take classes on UChicago’s campus last summer. 

“Being on a college campus and being exposed to that, being able to roam around Hyde Park and get the experience of a college and how college is—especially at a rigorous college like University of Chicago—and being able to work with professors there was just amazing for me,” Bailey said. “I took a lot of AP courses in high school, but Collegiate Scholars definitely showed me that in a college setting, I’m also able to thrive.”

Race and Gender was Bailey’s favorite class, he says, thanks in large part to the mix of insightful voices in the room. “They thought outside the box,” he said, “which sort of forced me outside my comfort zone to think outside the box as well.”

This fall, Bailey will attend Stanford University on a full scholarship.

Quincy Bailey and his mother
Quincy Bailey 

Other college readiness and access programs the University offers, like the Office of Special Programs-College Prep Upward Bound (OSP) program, have helped students identify what they’re looking for in a college and what they need to accomplish to get there. Maun Muhammad, who also attends Gwendolyn Brooks and lives in the South Shore neighborhood, says Upward Bound was essential in focusing her college search and guiding her and her family through the often-complicated application process. Muhammad took part in two college tours through the program: visits to several universities across the Midwest last spring and a trip to the Atlanta area this past April. The tours were the first times Muhammad had left home, she said, and they made her more comfortable with the idea of attending college outside of Chicago. The program’s ongoing encouragement and personalized, practical guidance made an impact as well. 

“I had a wide range of colleges I was considering with no direction. But OSP Upward Bound helped me narrow it down so I could focus on specific essays and applications and what I needed to get done,” Muhammad said. “They had a lot of information that my parents didn’t have. And although my parents have already been through the process once with my older brother, they still needed a little extra support—the OSP team made sure we were on time with the FAFSA, they made sure we understood the terminology around loans and stuff like that, and that we were more prepared this time around. I know with my brother they kind of went in blind, it was a struggle, but they had more support with me.”

Muhammad will attend Georgetown University this fall with a scholarship covering 95% of her costs.

Maun Muhammad
Maun Muhammad

Beyond the specific support, participants say these programs have provided an important community of like-minded peers from across the city. 

“It’s a really great way to connect low-income students. I feel like they’re the ones who suffer the most with feeling confident or having enough resources to maybe build up their resume or know how to apply to college—so it’s really valuable in the sense that you get connected with a lot of students from all over Chicago and you get a sense of different perspectives and new friendships outside of your own community or bubble that you have at your high school,” Perez says. “These programs are just an incredible addition to your support system. They honestly felt like my biggest supporters.  I can definitely say that they’ve been an essential part of my journey to getting where I am today.”



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